Pumpkin spice latte

There are few seasonal beverages so maligned and filled with meaning as the pumpkin spice latte. Since it’s popularization by Starbucks, it has become a part of the mimetic language of America. It has become a symbol, emblematic and subject to projection of all kinds. Its history made it especially susceptible to becoming a vessel of memory and prejudice. Its corporate germination in the early aughts allowed it to reach even further levels of cultural abstraction.

The original pumpkin spice recipe Starbucks introduced in 2003 didn’t even have any pumpkin in it (they added a small amount of pumpkin puree prior to the autumn of 2015). Pumpkin spice—a spice combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, sometimes ginger—has its origins in Pumpkin Pie Spice, first introduced by McCormick in the 1950s. When this blend was featured in a new seasonal drink at Starbucks in the fall of 2003, it was truncated to pumpkin spice, it was brought somewhere both closer and farther away from the popular American idea of the pumpkin. 

Native to North America, the abundant and relatively flavorless pumpkin has long relied on spices and seasonings to convey flavor. Pumpkin spice latte relies on a palette of spices long associated with pumpkin pie and other baked goods that utilize pumpkin puree. By titling the latte pumpkin spice instead of pumpkin pie spice, Starbucks conflated the pie and the pumpkin,  tapping into a bedrock image of fall and all that the season embodies.

Bolstered by marketing that focuses heavily on autumnal feelings and the broad mean of American taste pumpkin spices appeal to, Starbucks sold 200 million the decade following the lattes introduction. An entire pumpkin spice industry has proliferated in its wake. Pumpkin spice products have already accounted for $488.7 million in sales this year.

This popularity of the pumpkin spice phenomenon prompted a various reactions. The pumpkin spice latte not only changed the local Starbucks, it’s altered the landscape of every grocery store from late August through December. Popularity increases visibility, change prompts reactionary response.

Pumpkin spice, the latte and the flavor in general, is often associated with a particular stereotype of femininity. This can mainly been attributed to the overwhelming sweetness in its flavor. Compared to a regular latte, a pumpkin spice latte contains 30 more grams of sugar per serving. And sweetness, as a flavor profile, has been heavily feminized throughout the history of baking and culinary production. The misogynistic memes that equate pumpkin spice lattes with UGGs and leggings make perceived attributes of femininity in fall into a joke that works to establish a masculine identity by creating distance through derision. 

Pumpkin spice lattes have been used to signify a certain form of femininity (often referred to as basic, a nebulous term that was given a drawn out autopsy in 2014), one that also connotes whiteness. In an essay titled “The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins,” university professors Lisa Jordan Powell & Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt establish the pumpkin as a historical signifier of whiteness. A whole section of the paper is dedicated to pumpkin spice lattes. According to Powell and Engelhardt, the lattes “fluffiness, lack of substance, and triviality, regardless of attempts to dismiss them as “basic,” make them ultimate luxuries and hence markers of distinction and white privilege” and connect the drink to larger trends in consumer culture and race.

The odor of whiteness that clings so close to pumpkin spice in popular culture can also be attributed to how inseparable its identity is from that of its corporate progenitor. The image that Starbucks cultivates, the physical areas where the franchises exist, the price point of the drinks—all of this has built an association with white culture and its privileges. Often a punchline, this stereotype displayed lethal potential earlier this year when two black men were accosted by police after a white employee called them them and accused the men of loitering (the two men were waiting for a third associate to arrive). As Jelani Cobb notes, the crime these men committed was violating white space, a term coined to describe urban spaces where black people are unexpected and marginalized.

The racial reality of Starbucks is more complicated than this. 40% of their workers are people of color, though only 16% of their executives are. Only 21% of Starbucks customers in the United States (in 2016) were African-American, but only 28% were white. The majority of Starbucks customers across the nation are categorized as Hispanic and Asian-American. But the conflict created by black people existing in this white space and the reaction it prompted from law enforcement with roots in a history of enforcing the restrictions—named or unnamed—of these spaces prompted a wider acknowledgement of the very real consequences that result from the racial coding of brands and products.  

Pumpkin spice lattes should be everyone. The popularity of the pumpkin spice flavor profile is heavily entrenched in a sentimental nostalgia in the autumn season, something that everyone should be able to take part in and enjoy. Starbucks is selling a mass commodified creation built on the back of a flavor once confined to slow, brisk afternoons where time allowed for pies or baked goods assembled from pumpkin puree and its traditional spices. Due to global warming, The fall season is shifting. The “change in first leaf date” indicates that autumn is a season that’s expanding or contracting, depending on what area of the country you’re talking about. A beverage you can purchase across the country now offers a more concrete sense of how we define seasonal crossing over points than the weather or the leaves. Despite its obvious artificiality, it’s a flavor that comforts.

It’s true that Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte is too sweet. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising that something produced for mass consumption lacks nuance. Last year, the local downtown Des Moines coffee shop Horizon Line—a creative and expensive vendor of drip coffee, espresso drinks, and coffee cocktails—sold their own take on the pumpkin spice latte. It was a much improved take on the ubiquitous Starbucks offering, sold in one size that balanced the espresso and brought out the fragrant potential of the spice blend. I asked them last week if they would be bringing it back this year. The barista, who seemed a little embarrassed to acknowledge it ever existed, told me they would not. Their iteration of the latte confused people, he told me, since it lacked the Starbucks latte’s overwhelming sweetness.

There is an imperfect solution to this issue and it’s the only way I get my pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks The answer to counterbalancing the sugar is to order the drink with an extra shot of espresso. This creates less room for the milk and sugary pumpkin spice syrup, giving it a more balanced flavor profile. It also makes it even more expensive, launching it into the six dollar range, which is admittedly ridiculous. But in my mind, the season demands it.

The pumpkin is a totemic vegetable, a vessel of strongly articulated memory. Cold grass, brittle leaves. Its own frictionless, freezing innards. The taste of pumpkin pie topped with cool whip from the containers that would go on to house leftovers. The front stoop of every house you ever lived in, all of the first weeks into the new school year.  

One year, my grandma’s garden produced too many pumpkins. Many were carved, given away, hoisted upon neighbors and family, but many remained. The kids in the family were given permission to dispose of the pumpkins. We hauled them all out to the ditch filled with dying weeds between farm property and the gravel road. With sticks and metal rods, we pulverized each pumpkin. The solid gourds were reduced to pulp and guts. The smell of pumpkin stayed in the cold air.